Review: Day One of Pitchfork Music Festival, Friday in Union Park

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times


Yellow police tape may be a common sight throughout some Chicago neighborhoods, but Beck unwrapped a roll and pulled it across the length of his stage. The opening headliner at the Pitchfork Music Festival Friday, he defined in one 90-minute set what any good festival is about: diversity in numbers.

While a middle stretch was devoted to the luxuriating country sounds of his new album, he bookended it with vamping R&B, riff-heavy rock, quasi-funk, electro-pop, and an early alt-rock hit (“Where It’s At”) mixed with country blues (“One Foot in the Grave”). Switching between solo harmonica with stomping foot and heavy keyboards are, by now, his live signature. He was the only performer on the festival bill who arrives here this weekend loaded with a catalog of music spanning 29 years. Going deep is not a stretch, unlike others, particularly on the festival’s small third stage who are not just starting out but appear to have nowhere to go.

In that category is singer SZA whose stage name implies she might have the frontal attack comparable to any member of the Wu-Tang Clan. Instead, she is a 23-year-old R&B singer named Solana Rowe who released her label debut in April. Sipping whiskey and looking, no doubt, nervous, Rowe whispered, rasped, and was otherwise a ghost inside her own thin music. Whether or not this was the case of someone hitting the stage who wasn’t quite ready, SZA didn’t sizzle.

Pitchfork organizers usually have expert curatorial sense for fitting who works on what stage and when. They failed in the case of Sun Kil Moon, the ongoing project of Mark Kozelek, former of Red House Painters. For more than a decade, Kozelek has put out albums, and appeared in town, playing quiet and elegant songs that draw people in through his mournful voice and epic arrangements. Yet having him appear on the festival’s biggest stage under the bright sun, where his voice and music was lost in the mix, almost made it seem like he wasn’t there at all.

He and his band sat amid Beck’s gear and did a set that would have flattened a crowd at Metro to silence. But the Pitchfork nation wouldn’t have any of it, and the only sound during his set was their chorus of conversations — An unfortunate circumstance for an artist who deserves closer ears.

The most straightforward singer-songwriter of the day was Sharon Van Etten who rotated between multiple guitars and keyboards amid a band that brought her mournful songs to life. Between songs, Etten was unfailingly upbeat, but when the music started, she dove into songs of psychological intensity. On one of the loveliest songs (“Break Me”), sung over electronic beats and in a falsetto, Etten sang, “He can break me with one hand to my head.” Later, on the punishingly dark “Your Love is Killing Me,” she offered: “Burn my skin so I can’t feel you.”

Keyboardist Heather Woods Broderick often doubled Etten’s vocals, which intensified music that was already harrowing, but instead managed to sound at peace.

There’s something telling that the one performer that united the crowd from the lip of the stage to the hinterlands of the food area was a 74-year-old Italian composer and electronic originator Giorgio Moroder. No doubt many in the crowd were diving into Google on their mobiles to find out who was this man with the bushy mustache and fingers to the skies. In fact, he is an Academy Award winner (“Midnight Express”) and multiple film composer (“Scarface,” “American Gigolo,” “Top Gun”) who has been the focus of a revival thanks to a recent collaboration with Daft Punk.

Psychedelic colors swirled over video footage of Moroder at his laptop and mixer, creating drama that wasn’t apparent on the stage. As he got deeper into his set and pulled out the biggest disco-era hits he worked on — remixes of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” “Hot Stuff” and Blondie’s “Call Me,” as well as the aptly-titled “Giorgio by Moroder” by Daft Punk, which he demonstrated started with a single click beat.

“This is by far the best gig in my life,” he said in broken English. But when his set finally took flight, it was abruptly ended due to time. He looked disappointed, and so was everyone else.

Back to Beck. His six-member band, including guitarist Jason Faulkner of Jellyfish, rotted through his catalog of divergent musical styles. He fit each role comfortable, whether rapping through a stage prowl, strutting while delivering a guitar solo, or dropping to his knees seeking soul salvation. (“I need to go outside because I’ve been locked in a closet with R. Kelly for 17 weeks,” he quipped during “Debra.”)

The more serious material came from his bookend albums, “Sea Change” and “Morning Phase.” While not as frankly despondent as Etten, Beck cloaked the hurt amid lush guitars and sonic beauty. “Isolation,” he repeated during “Wave” while standing alone onstage with just a keyboardist drowning his tears in synths. The police tape joke came later, but it would have been a national fit there and then.

The festival continues Saturday and Sunday.


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